Critical find at Fort St. Joseph

Published 5:00 pm Sunday, December 5, 2010

Western Michigan University students and staff work at the Fort St. Joseph archaeological dig at the annual archaeological field school this summer. This summer they discovered a foundation wall and two wooden posts that helped them determine a partial outline of one of the buildings of at Fort St. Joseph.

Thinking of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project in terms of a puzzle, Western Michigan University faculty and students may have discovered a critical corner piece this year.

The most significant discovery of the year was a foundation wall and two wooden posts that helped them determine the partial outline of one of the buildings at the fort.

The WMU Department of Anthropology, which has been excavating the site since 2002, also unearthed colonial-period artifacts like a tinkling cone, gunflint, a fragment of faience and olive green glass.

Other artifacts included musket balls, gun parts, imported ceramics, glass beads and structural remains of the fort.

Michael Nassaney, the principal investigator for the project and a professor in the WMU Department of Anthropology, said the discovery of the foundation wall and posts was a big one.

“It’s really important, because we’re trying to get a sense of the size of the buildings and how they’re oriented,” he said. “It gives us a better sense of the layout of the site.”

Fort St. Joseph, established as a mission in the 1680s by French Jesuits, was also a garrison and trading post. The fort became an important part of a chain of settlements that facilitated the fur trade between the French and natives.

Nassaney was not only pleased with the amount of discoveries this year but also the community outreach and involvement.

“One way to measure progress has to do with community recognition and community involvement,” he said. “And we’ve made tremendous strides.”

Efforts to promote the site have resulted in about 10,000 visitors to the annual archaeological field school since 2002. This summer’s open house at the site drew more than 1,500 people.

“We get a lot of repeat visitors and a lot of new faces as well,” Nassaney said. “We get a lot of people outside the region too. You would think that year after year numbers would decline but they haven’t.”

WMU also held its second archaeological lecture series at the Niles District Library, sponsored three week-long training programs for middle school students and created a newsletter and facebook page to engage the community in the project.

Nassaney says the work he and his department have been doing is helping the community expand its story.

“For years Niles has been known as the City of Four Flags,” he said. “Here’s an opportunity to celebrate that heritage and understand what life was like in the 18th century.”

Although it was a productive year for the project, the future is a little bit uncertain. Morris Farm, which has been providing affordable housing for the WMU students during the summers since 2006, was sold this year.

The department is trying to find a new facility in the Niles area to house students, accommodate laboratory equipment and provide exhibit and storage space for materials found at the site.